Cambridge Analytica – The Singapore Connections

Cambridge Analytica – The Singapore Connections
Credit: Reuters / TPG
Why you need to know

SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, and other related companies and individuals have several connections with Singapore.

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Key Takeaways
  • SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, had (and might still have) an office in Singapore.
  • Former directors of the Behavioral Dynamics Institute (BDI), the company founded by SCL Group CEO Nigel Oakes prior to establishing SCL and of which he remains chairman, provided consultancy and written speeches for the Singapore Ministry of Defense (MINDEF) and is registered as a "live" company in the city state.
  • Bernard Lim held his role as chief psychologist and head of MINDEF’s Applied Behavioural Sciences Department concurrently with a role at BDI.
  • Singaporean academics who worked for MINDEF and other Singapore government departments have access to Facebook user data via the myPersonality app developed by Dr David Stillwell and Dr Michal Kosinski of The Psychometrics Centre at Cambridge University, and the group co-authored and individually wrote several papers on using Facebook data to understand public perceptions and online expression.
  • Some of those involved have taken steps to delete evidence of these relationships.

In explosive revelations earlier this month, Facebook disclosed that 87 million of its users around the world might have had their personal information “improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica (CA).”

In Singapore, Facebook told Channel NewsAsia that the personal information of 65,009 people in Singapore might also have fallen into the wrong hands.

And that's about as far as the Singapore connection has so far been developed, but The New Lens has evidence of links between the protagonists of the scandal involving CA and the Lion City, including Singaporean academics who have worked with the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), the Singapore Prime Minister’s Office, and the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees Singapore's police, security and intelligence services.

A trio of prominent Singaporean academics have access to Facebook data harvested in much the same way as the app developed by Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, the Cambridge University psychology professor who harvested the data later exploited by CA, and are likely familiar with the methodology used to leverage that data for political gain.

Moreover, SCL chief executive officer (CEO) Nigel Oakes's first company, the Behavioral Dynamics Institute (BDI), also has ties with MINDEF, while SCL Group and BDI appear to maintain a presence in Singapore, or at least did so in the recent past.

The links suggest there are questions to answer over the relationships between SCL, BDI and the Singapore government, and whether those relationships have informed a so-called "information dominance" strategy in the city state.

The background

News of CA’s illegitimate use of data broke last month when whistleblower Chris Wylie, who was previously Research Director at CA, told the UK’s The Guardian newspaper and Channel 4 News that CA had illegitimately acquired Facebook data.

He described his role as being to “chang[e] people’s minds not through persuasion but through "informational dominance", a set of techniques that includes rumor, disinformation and fake news.”

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Credit: Reuters/TPG
Christopher Wylie, a whistleblower who formerly worked with Cambridge Analytica, speaks at the Frontline Club in London, Britain, March 26, 2018.

The Guardian reported that, “SCL Elections [the company that later became CA] had used a similar suite of tools in more than 200 elections around the world, mostly in undeveloped democracies that Wylie would come to realise were unequipped to defend themselves.”

"For all intents and purposes,” The Guardian explained, “SCL/CA are one and the same.” CA was created by SCL Elections, a subsidiary of SCL Group.

Initially, Facebook denied that there was a breach in its data transfer policy.

It told The Guardian: “Protecting people’s information is at the heart of everything we do, and we require the same from people who operate apps on Facebook. If these reports are true, it’s a serious abuse of our rules. Both Aleksandr Kogan [the man behind the Facebook app CA developed] as well as the SCL Group and CA certified to us that they destroyed the data in question.”

A month prior, Facebook’s director of policy for the United Kingdom, Simon Milner, told British members of parliament during testimony at a select committee inquiry into fake news that: “[CA] may have lots of data, but it will not be Facebook user data. It may be data about people who are on Facebook that they have gathered themselves, but it is not data that we have provided.”

When CA’s CEO, Alexander Nix, was questioned, he added: “We do not work with Facebook data and we do not have Facebook data.”

But after The Guardian’s and Channel 4 News’ investigations, Facebook caved and admitted that “data from an app that was using Facebook Login” was passed on by Kogan to SCL/CA. Kogan is the founder of Global Science Research (GSR), the company that negotiated the commercial agreement with CA to share and exploit the data.

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Credit: Reuters/TPG
Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica arrives at the offices of Cambridge Analytica in central London, Britain, March 20, 2018.

Facebook finally admitted that it had known about the breach in late 2015 – but it was only in August 2016 that Facebook’s lawyers wrote to Wylie demanding that he delete the data.

“Because this data was obtained and used without permission, and because GSR was not authorised to share or sell it to you, it cannot be used legitimately in the future and must be deleted immediately,” the letter said.

But Wylie said Facebook did not appear serious about getting the data back. “They waited two years and did absolutely nothing to check that the data was deleted. All they asked me to do was tick a box on a form and post it back,” he added.

Kogan had harvested Facebook data from an app he developed – This Is Your Digital Life – wherein users would take a personality test which gave Kogan access to their Facebook profiles and those of their friends.

Kogan was only given permission to use the data for academic purposes. Despite this, he shared the data with CA. Under the commercial agreement later sealed between GSR and SCL, Kogan would use his Facebook data to match personality traits with voter rolls.

CA then used the illegally-obtained data to help political parties win elections in various countries, precipitating the crisis in personal privacy and data security currently taking the world by storm.

The myPersonality app

The Guardian reported that CA had initially approached Dr. Michal Kosinski in a bid to access the kind of data that the company would eventually secure from Kogan.

Kosinski, along with The Psychometrics Centre Deputy Director Dr. David Stillwell, had collected their data though the myPersonality Facebook app, which Stillwell had developed as a student in 2007 while working at The Psychometric Centre at Cambridge University.

But according to The Guardian report, the talks fell through and Kogan cut Kosinski and Stillwell out of the deal. “Kosinski was asking for US$500,000 for the IP but Kogan said he could replicate it and just harvest his own set of data,” Wylie told the newspaper. Kogan wanted to make a “personal profit [of US$1 million]” by acting as the middleman on behalf of CA, while only giving Kosinski and Stillwell US$100,000 each, the report said.

When Kosinski became suspicious about what Kogan was doing, it was reported that he “immediately broke off contact with Kogan" and informed the director of the Psychometric Centre, leading to extensive recriminations among Cambridge University academics over the ethics behind such deals.

Just like Kogan's data, Stillwell and Kosinski's personality information was gathered through a Facebook app. The myPersonality app is based on the ‘My Personality 100-Item’ test, still hosted on the The Psychometric Centre's website, which offers participants the chance to respond to a series of statements in the way they feel best matches their personality.

The test also poses questions about respondents' political inclinations. Example responses include, “I tend to vote for conservative political candidates” and “I tend to vote for liberal political candidates.”

At the end of the test, users are also asked for their date of birth, the country they were born, as well as their gender, ethnicity, education level and employment status, though this is optional.

According to The Psychometric Centre, the app “proved to be the most successful online personality testing app ever developed. Within a few months of its launch it had provided millions of surfers with detailed reports on their personality profiles and, at peak, was receiving over 1 million visits per month.”

It was Stillwell's and Kosinski research based on collecting this data and correlating it with Facebook "likes", published in a 2013 paper, that prompted Wylie, the CA whistleblower, to read between the lines and realize its potential to influence politics. "I came across a paper about how personality traits could be a precursor to political behavior, and it suddenly made sense," he told The Guardian: "Liberalism is correlated with high openness and low conscientiousness, and when you think of Lib Dems they're absent-minded professors and hippies…. And it just clicked all of a sudden."

Kosinski and Stillwell had “show[n] that easily accessible digital records of behavior, in this case Facebook “likes”, can be used to automatically and accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes including: sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender."

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The Singapore connections

Following the publication of the paper that had inspired Wylie, Kosinski and Stillwell shared this powerful personality mapping data and knowhow with academics and government representatives in Singapore.

Foremost among these is the Singapore Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). In 2014, Kosinski and several other Cambridge University academics conducted the three-day workshop, “Item Response Theory, Computerized Adaptive Testing, and Online Testing” at MINDEF. A copy of a similarly-titled presentation by Kosinski can be found here.

Kosinski and Stillwell had previously co-authored papers with Singaporean academics David Chan, Qiu Lin and Pan Liu, and in 2016 this quintet presented at the 23rd Congress of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology, where they correlated data obtained from 3,324 myPersonality Facebook app users in conjunction with Hofstede’s six dimensions of national culture framework. The study explores how big data from social media can show how life satisfaction maps with online expressions of emotional well-being within different cultures.

In the same month, they also presented at the 31st International Congress of Psychology in Yokohama, Japan, showcasing similar research involving the data of 2,208 users of the myPersonality app.

This means that the three Singapore academics had access to the myPersonality data and were acquainted with the methodology developed by Kosinski and Stillwell.

The academics

Annalyn Ng is a Singaporean academic who has held posts with MINDEF and worked at The Psychometric Centre at Cambridge University. In 2018, while at the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech), Ng co-authored a paper correlating myPersonality app data with personality traits. The full text of the paper can be read here.

According to her LinkedIn profile, before moving to GovTech and the Ministry of Manpower as a senior computational scientist, Ng worked with MINDEF from October 2012 to November last year as a data scientist and psychologist.

Of her responsibilities at MINDEF, Ng said on LinkedIn that she had “designed and administered public surveys to over 20,000 multi-racial respondents [and] tracked [their] lifetime commitment to military conscription,” she also “identified performance predictors for elite forces and maladjusted soldiers [and] updated prediction models to keep up with cohort changes” and presented recommendations to Chief of Defence Force and [the] Defence Minister.

While working at The Psychometric Centre at Cambridge, Ng worked on a paper that according to later employer CrowdANALYTIX involved “analyzing Facebook and Twitter data for consumer insights”. The center said “she worked with [its] clients to program cognitive tests for job recruitment, and to mine data for targeted advertising.”

Ng’s blog states she is a data analyst for the Singapore government, where her analysis helps inform decisions on large-scale public policy.

Of the three Singapore-based academics who co-authored papers with Kosinski and Stillwell, David Chan has the strongest connection to the government in Singapore.

He is the Professor of Psychology and Director of the Behavioural Sciences Institute at Singapore Management University (SMU).

He is also Adjunct Principal Scientist at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) under Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry, and Co-Director of the Centre for Technology and Social-Behavioural Insights, which was jointly established by A*STAR and SMU.

Chan served on the National Population and Talent Division Research Advisory Panel, under the Prime Minister’s Office from 2013 to 2015, and was also the Chief Administrator at the Singapore Police Force Police Assessment Center in 1991, having completed a Police Welfare Scholarship with the Singapore Police Force from 1989 to 1990.

In 2016, Chan received the Special Recognition Honour from the Ministry of Home Affairs for outstanding contributions to the Home Team in the field of psychology. The Home Team comprises Singapore's police, civil defense and prison services, as well as the Internal Security Department, Singapore’s intelligence agency.

Chan’s work was intimately involved in parsing the relationship between the political establishment and the electorate. This is evidenced by a talk he gave at a conference organized by the Singapore Institute of Policy Studies in the wake of the 2015 General Election (GE2015).

There, Chan discussed “the election campaign and the poll outcome, and the implications of GE2015 for politics, policy debates and Singaporeans” as well as “how there should be “a greater focus on the character and competency of political candidates.” His talk was titled, “From Speculation to Sense-Making: Psychological Capital and People Centricity.”

Other notable studies that Chan conducted include:

  • “Study on State of Integration” and the “Study on a Strong Singapore Society” for the National Population and Talent Division, under the Prime Minister’s Office.
  • “Longitudinal Study of Values and Attitudes of Singapore Public Service Officers 2010, 2012 and 2015” and for the Public Service Division, Prime Minister’s Office.
  • “Conceptualization of NSmen Commitment Study” for the Singapore Armed Forces
  • “Analyses of the Survey on Social Attitudes of Singaporeans 2013” for the Ministry of Social and Family Development.
  • “National Survey on Social Attitudes of Singaporeans 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2005” for the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.
  • “Study on Path Models of Social Policy Principles/Values and National Orientations’ for the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.

As a collection, the papers show Chan's work focuses on analyzing the attitudes of Singaporean public sector workers, its military and public.

Another co-author, Qiu Lin, is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the Singapore Nanyang Technological University. Qiu had received funding from the Singapore Ministry of Education, and previously provided consultancy and training to the Singapore Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA). On its website, DSTA says that it “implements defence technology plans, acquires defence equipment and supplies, and develops defence infrastructure for the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).”

In 2010, Qiu gave the presentation, "Understanding the Psychological Motives Behind Microblogging" at the aforementioned workshop on social network mining at SMU.

He also co-wrote a separate paper with Kosinski and Stillwell analyzing, “Facebook status updates to determine the extent to which users' emotional expression predicted their subjective well-being – specifically their self-reported satisfaction with life.”

The study obtained data from the myPersonality Facebook app. It found that “both the type of emotional expressions and the time frame of status updates determine whether emotional expressions in Facebook status updates can effectively reflect users' subjective well-being”. This paper was co-written with Pan Liu.

Pan Liu is also a Research Fellow at the Behavioural Sciences Institute at SMU, where David Chan is the director. Chan is her supervisor. She has co-authored several papers and presentations with Han Lin, whose main supervisor when the latter was doing her PhD was Qiu Lin.

Han Lin is now known as Irene Lin and works at A*STAR where David Chan is the Adjunct Principal Scientist. Pan Liu and Han Lin have worked together on several papers looking into Facebook, including deep dives into how emotions are shared and disclosed on the social network and how browsing affects self-awareness and social well-being.

Together with Qiu Lin, they this year published a paper studying the effects of cultural tightness and social network density on the expression of positive and negative emotions, using data from the myPersonality app.

This paper using the myPersonality app data was written independently of Kosinski and Stillwell, meaning the trio of Irene (Han) Lin, Qiu Lin and Pan Liu had independent access to the myPersonality data

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SCL’s Singapore links

SCL itself also has a connection to the Singapore government, and MINDEF in particular.

On its website, SCL Group says that it “provides data, analytics and strategy to governments and military organizations worldwide. For over 25 years, we have conducted behavioral change programs in over 60 countries and have been formally recognized for our work in defense & social change.”

From at least 2010 to 2012, SCL Group had an office in Singapore, where it can be assumed it conducted similar activities. The listing on the group’s website was removed in 2012, but can still be viewed via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which maintains a digital archive of the internet.

The connection to MINDEF is embodied by Bernard Lim, the former head of MINDEF’s Applied Behavioural Sciences Department.

Lim’s LinkedIn profile (which suddenly became unavailable a few days ago) said that he was MINDEF’s Chief Psychologist with its Defence Psychology Department from June 2008 to October 2015.

When presenting the Award for Outstanding Contribution to Psychology in Singapore (AOCPS) 2015, the Singapore Psychological Society said that, “As the Chief Psychologist, he is responsible for the management of MINDEF and the Singapore Armed Forces' [SAF] psychology resources as well as the provision of psychology support for organisational excellence and operational effectiveness."

Lim is also a member of the Behavioural Dynamics Institute (BDI), an institution founded by the CEO of CA parent SCL Group, Nigel Oakes, prior to establishing SCL. Bloomberg describes BDI “as a centre of excellence and a research facility for strategic communication.” Oakes is also BDI’s chairman.

Archived versions of the BDI website (which was also abruptly taken offline a few days ago) list Lim as a member since 2013.

The archived BDI website states that Oakes used the methodology and intellectual property developed by the institute to establish SCL, and that this was later used to “[run] election campaigns and national communication campaigns for a broad variety of international governments.”

In an older version of its website, BDI is more straightforward about its agenda. It said: “The institute specialises in applying its methodology to military and political campaigns, where the audiences are hostile or friendly, national or international.

It goes on: “BDI can tell you how ‘difficult’ an audience is likely to be, how best to influence the audience and then can actually produce the communications or triggers that will change the audience.”

This Target Audience Analysis technique developed by BDI would then be used by SCL Elections, “to better understand behaviour within electorates, and to effect actual and measurable behavioural change within voting groups,” the older version of the SCL Elections website said. “Put simply, our unique and proven communication methodology is designed to deliver significantly more votes to our clients, even from despondent, apathetic and even negatively predisposed electorates, thereby ensuring electoral success,” it added.

Lim is also linked to an Andrew Ritcheson, who according to a screenshot captured by Powerbase, a website similar to Wikipedia but dedicated to exposing “corporate capture, political spin and lies,” is a former Director and Senior Academic Fellow at BDI.

This reference joins the BDI website and Lim’s LinkedIn profile in having recently disappeared from Ritcheson's LinkedIn. In its place, it mentions only that he was the Director of Research from 2006 to January 2009 for a company now listed as "Confidential."

Ritcheson's LinkedIn profile also lists Lim as commending the former BDI director “on his work with BDI when they were hired as consultants in 2008.”

Lim had written: "Andrew is very approachable and friendly in all our interactions with him. He demonstrated good knowledge of the area of work and is certainly an expert in it. It was a positive experience working with Andrew." The entry was dated Oct. 12, 2009.

Further archived internet records show that Lee Rowland, whom Powerbase lists as a Director and Senior Academic Fellow of BDI’s management team in 2010, also worked with MINDEF. Like Ritcheson, Rowland was a former lecturer at the Oxford University in psychology, and also worked at SCL.

In an archived version of Rowland’s blog, he wrote: “In the past I’ve written speeches for politicians, reports for various governmental agencies – including the Singaporean Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).”

On an existing comment on the blog, Chris Sanders asked Rowland: “How did you end up writing for the Singaporean ministry of defense [sic]?” In his response, Rowland said: “Double-unfortunately I can’t tell you how I ended up writing for the Singaporean etc. and even whether or not it’s true. Apologies.”

The last record on website archival site Wayback Machine of Rowland’s confirmation of having written for MINDEF dates to Dec. 5, 2009. By the time of Sanders’ comment on Dec. 21 of the same year, the information had been removed.

Deepening web

To add to the web of relations, a Behavioural Dynamics Institute is listed as an entity under Singapore's Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA), which is a national regulator of business entities, public accountants and corporate service providers in Singapore.

The Behavioural Dynamics Institute is listed as a “live company”, set up with paid-up capital of only US$1.

The company’s address on ACRA – 137 Telok Ayer Street #08-01 Singapore 068602 –directs to a company called Camelot Trust, which provides company set up and offshore tax planning services.

In further information provided by ACRA – a fee is needed to pay for it – the Behavioural Dynamics Institute registered in Singapore is listed as providing business and management consultancy services, as well as research and experimental development on social sciences and humanities.

The company is represented by David Michael Edwards and Anita Chew Peck Hwa, otherwise known as Anita Ricquier.

Ricquier is also an executive director of Camelot Trust – the company that shares the same address as Behavioural Dynamics Institute.

Ricquier’s name can also be found on the Panama Offshore Leaks Database and the Offshore Leaks Database, as a shareholder of Supermax Global Ltd., and an intermediary of Jordans Corporate Pte Ltd, which is connected to 132 other entities, and registers its address at 105 Cecil Street #15-01 The Octagon Singapore, 069534.

Edwards was an Adjunct Faculty at SMU where he taught a course on “Ethics & Social Responsibility” from 2007 to 2015 for its MBA program, but the university website has no other information on him or the course.

In his Conference Board biography, Edwards is described as “a qualified solicitor for over 45 years” who sits on the Panel of Mediators of the Singapore Mediation Center, the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre Panel of Accredited Mediators and the U.S.-China Business Mediation Panel. He was also the Deputy Attorney-General of Hong Kong from 1990 to 1995, after taking on various legal roles in the British Foreign Office.

Neither Edwards nor Ricquier mention a relationship with Behavioural Dynamics Institute in their resumes or work histories.

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Questions to answer

Last month, Simon Milner, Facebook’s vice-president of public policy for Asia-Pacific came to Singapore for the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods hearing on March 22, where he was questioned by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.

The select committee was set up to by the Singapore government to explore how the government should combat “fake news.”

Shanmugam pointed to Facebook’s data breach in 2015 and said: “You do not inform the users (then), which is very odd, and inexplicable and one would say, inexcusable. You do not tell the public about it. And it’s contrary to everything you have stated about the importance of protecting data, and protecting users’ data." Shanmugam went on to reference Milner's unsatisfactory performance at the select committee inquiry in the UK.

Milner replied: “I felt that at the time [of the UK inquiry] I was giving truthful answers to questions. Now in hindsight, especially given recent events, I wish I had said more but at that time…it is really only the events of the last few days and the things that have come to light.”

Shanmugam pressed: “If you thought that you could turn up here today, not answer questions on CA, and explain (away) your answers with your answers five weeks ago to a different parliament. We are all sovereign parliaments but we look at your conduct all over the world.”

But there is more. ACRA recently rejected the application of OSEA Pte Ltd to register as a private company, on the basis that “we should not allow foreigners to interfere in how we should govern our country. Nor should we allow any group of Singaporeans to lend themselves to being used by foreigners to pursue a political activity in Singapore.”

OSEA publishes the New Naratif website, which aims to provide news on the basis of “openness, transparency and engagement.” New Naratif is run by historian Thum Ping Tjin and activist Kirsten Han.

Along with Facebook's Milner, Thum and Han also attended the open hearings at the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods only to report that they were “harangued, harassed, threatened and misrepresented.” They complained that the hearing choose to focus on their personal work histories and failed to abide by its own terms of reference.

Shanmugam can lambaste Milner over his double standards, but the Singapore government has questions of its own to answer.

SCL and BDI specialize in leveraging online and offline data to develop and deploy tools including “fake news” to help governments win elections, influence electorates and other audiences, and discredit opposition figures. Both companies maintain or have had offices in Singapore.

And the Singaporean academics David Chan, Qiu Lin and Pan Liu, all of whom are familiar with SCL and BDI's methodology in leveraging Facebook data and have had access to such data themselves, either hold roles with Singapore government departments, or have presented findings on similar topics to them.

The facts and relationships detailed above provide ample reason to seek assurances and clarification over the depth of involvement between SCL, BDI and the companies and individuals associated with their processes and data mining expertise, and the Singapore government, particularly MINDEF, not to mention the impact this may have had on the perceptions and voting intentions of Singapore's people, public sector workers or military.

The News Lens has requested via the media relations departments of MINDEF and the Ministry of Home Affairs that the Singapore government confirm that it has never engaged BDI or SCL Group in any commercial arrangement, and disclose in full any relationship, contract or association that it or its staff currently hold or have maintained in the past with either company.

Requests have been filed to detail the contents of the report or reports drafted by the former BDI director Lee Rowland on MINDEF's behalf, and for assurances that the work Bernard Lim performed while he was MINDEF's chief psychologist from 2008 and 2015 did not constitute a conflict of interest given his holding of a post with BDI since 2013.

The News Lens has also asked MINDEF, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Prime Minister's Office for assurances that the Singapore government has never had access to data from the myPersonality Facebook app, or been involved in leveraging data collected for the purpose of academic research, including that illegally obtained from Facebook by CA on 65,000 Singaporean citizens, to develop Target Audience Analysis studies that target the Singapore public.

Singapore has no freedom of information law, placing the onus on the Singapore government to freely disclose this information.

Read Next: Does Singapore Really Need a 'Fake News' Law?

Editor: David Green

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